Actor John Vernon, star of Wojeck, various films, dies at 72 in L.A.
TORONTO (CP) – He was the smarmy Dean Wormer in the sophomoric cult movie Animal House.
He was a bad guy who got tossed out a window to his death by the even badder Lee Marvin in Point Blank. But Canadians may best remember actor John Vernon as a crusading coroner in the groundbreaking 1960s CBC crime series Wojeck.
Vernon, 72, died peacefully at his Los Angeles home Tuesday, his family said.
With his pockmarked face and heavy-lidded blue eyes, Vernon proved to be the ideal villain in dozens of the 85 motion pictures he made over a four-decade career. But he started as a hero in Wojeck in which his character was based on real-life Toronto coroner and politician Dr. Morton Shulman and which formed the template for future forensics-based crime series, from Quincy to Da Vinci’s Inquest to CSI.
“Everybody’s seen my face but nobody’s sure who I am,” he once told an interviewer, revealing that he had often been mistaken for Richard Burton or Robert Shaw. “People confuse me with other people and I enjoy that.”
He was seen most recently on the “double secret probation” DVD edition of Animal House, in a feature that offered a tongue-in-cheek current look at the characters of the 1978 film. Vernon’s Dean Wormer was a crotchety, snowy-haired senior in a wheelchair.
Chris Haddock, creator of Da Vinci’s Inquest, said at the time he was surprised that Vernon was still around and agreed it was a great idea to see if he could make a cameo appearance on the series as a sort of tribute.
Vernon’s other notable film roles included The Outlaw Josey Wales, Dirty Harry, Airplane II, Topaz, Brannigan, Charley Varrick, Nobody Waved Goodbye and Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here. He also starred in a short-lived ABC-TV Animal House spinoff series called Delta House and in a 1990 CBC movie that reprised his Wojeck character.
TV guest roles included The FBI, Bonanza, Mission Impossible, The Name of the Game, High Chapparall, Judd for the Defence and Quincy. He also made a pilot for a failed U.S. series called Hunter. There were more than 100 roles in Canadian TV, running the gamut from Tugboat Annie to Cannonball to Forest Rangers.
Regina-born and stage trained, the six-foot-two Vernon, whose birth name was Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz, spent five years at the Stratford Festival, where he met his future Wojeck co-star Ted Follows, Megan Follows’ father.
Speaking from his home in Kitchener, Ont., Follows said Thursday that although he and Vernon hadn’t been in touch since they made the Wojeck movie, they had been close friends for many years. He understood Vernon had had heart problems and was recently released from hospital.
He recalled how “way ahead of its time” Wojeck was as a prime-time series that dealt frankly with such issues as abortion and lesbianism.
“(Vernon) was awfully good in that show . . . he really was perfect in that role.”
Follows believes that Vernon would have preferred leading-man roles during his Hollywood years but accepted being slotted in as the perennial heavy.
“John was superb. He really knew how to use the camera, and vocally he was just born to have a mike nearby.”
Vernon attended London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and in London joined several repertory companies. His Broadway debut came in Royal Hunt of the Sun, and from there he moved to Hollywood for a prolific career playing all those heartless villains.
“The stars are always the good guys, so the guest stars have to be the bad guys,” he said in a 1979 interview. “Even though I played a lot of heavies I was very lucky to work all the time, without getting pigeon-holed.”
Vernon is survived by his former wife Nancy, his children Chris, Kate, Nan, Jim West and Grant West, and a granddaughter.
There will be a private service in Los Angeles and, at a later date, a gathering of friends to remember him in Toronto, the family said.